How Do Parents Explain Enslavement to Their Children?



Nobody starts out knowing anything about slavery in America or anywhere else and you can’t pick it up by osmosis. You have to be taught it, be told about it, or conduct your own research. I personally have learned much more about enslaved people in the past five years than in all my living beforehand. It came through reading, research, and looking for the answers to questions spawned by what I’d learned. I realized how little I’d learned from my parents and frankly how little I’d passed along to my children. Slavery was something to be learned about in school and hardly ever discussed in my family. I recently posed the question on Facebook, “What do parents tell their children about slavery?” Here are some of the responses:

“Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s my parents never withheld any information about slavery that we may have asked about, but they also didn’t volunteer much specific information. I grew up in Springfield Illinois, the hometown of A. Lincoln, so we weren’t strangers to the topic at all.

My father told me that his Mississippi great-grandfather was white (we had a portrait of him hanging in our house) and also that his biracial grandfather was born into slavery in 1853 to the aforementioned white man and an enslaved woman, my 2x great-grandmother, Mary Collins. By the time I was old enuff to ask that, I was old enuff to figure out that they (my 2x great grandparents) weren’t married. In fact, they lived in two houses connected by a breezeway — the white man and his wife and their kids in one house, and my great-great-grandmother and her son in another house on the other side. That’s about all they volunteered.”
— Edie

“This made me ask J what I’ve told her about slavery. She said, “what is that?”. Then I asked her if she learned anything about this in class when she learned about Ruby Bridges, she said no.

Then she said is that when white people called black people bad names? I said before that… and we had a discussion.

Thank you for prompting this.” — Lauren

“After we prayed as a family this morning to our ancestral Lord & Savior. I read the Willie Lynch letter: how to make a slave…you could hear a pin drop, there were no phones out. In short, to answer the questions asked: the truth to the best of my knowledge. #powertothepeople #themambitiousgurlz” — Kennedi

“My grandfather said that his mother was the child of a master-slave relationship. The master was a white man named Captain Grace. He owned a riverboat taxi service as well as slaves in Texas. When he died, he left land to his slave children and his white children.” — Osie

“Absolutely nothing.” — Clement

“I taught my children the truth and gradually added to the story as they were/are mature enough to process the harsh truths. There are some subjects we have not touched. Movies make it easier…I have found that some kids know nothing, that’s disheartening. My kids grew up in the Atlanta area also, black pride was prevalent and a constant topic at home and school.” — Aisha

“I tell my older kids everything without censoring it and have, starting around maybe 1st or 2nd grade. My younger two are still preschool-aged and we talk about the civil rights era but not slavery as of yet. My older kids have also seen many movies and we talk about them. I know that when my oldest was asked what he thought of when he heard slavery when he was maybe 13, he listed everything from rape and torture to Juneteenth…..I know because I got a call 😒 If there is a relevant movie and we are watching it, all kids are present and they make the choice to watch or not and whether to discuss regardless of age.” — Gina

“This year I told my students (Pre Schoolers through High Schoolers) “We come from Greatness. Our History did not begin with Slavery. It began ages before that with Kingdoms, Empires, and civilizations that still have influence today. We were not “Slaves” we were “Enslaved”. Big difference!” — Geo

“A parent should tell their children that slavery was the cruelest most degrading part of a history of forced servitude, no pay, no rights, killed or maimed for trying to learn to read or write. And as such, they should take every opportunity to educate themselves so they can become productive citizens to further strengthen the cause of Black progress, and by all means, do not fall victim to any form of self-imposed slavery, be it mental, physical, or material.” — Michael

“As a white person with black grandchildren, I am at a loss as to what to tell them. All I can do is read the comments here, and try to figure it out from listening to you all.

Thank you for opening up this discussion. I think it’s important for me, as a white person, to be honest with them about the past, and to not make excuses, or sugar coat it.

My grandson had his own experience at the age of 8, being called an n****r by a monitor on his bus. I asked how he felt about it, and he told me he didn’t care, but who knows.

I need people who this actually affects to teach me how to deal with it.” — Glenda

“My father was a Black Panther and he & my nana (who’s alive & turning 93 this year) told us of our family members that were owned one being right here in TN.

They made sure we knew about Emmett Till and that there were two law books one for blacks and one for whites.

We were told about the hangings, tar & feathering and the Underground Railroad and my family being rooted in music told about how we’d communicate in code through music during slavery.

Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Nat Turner, The Haiti Revolt. I was made to watch “Roots” as a young girl.

My family wanted us to know the horrors of slavery but also the triumphs and that we were descended from strong proud people that never gave up.

They also wanted us to know the diseases of slavery still existed even in our time and that while we weren’t enslaved to a plantation we were most definitely still in a country that would want to see us back in chains.” — Ajia

“Nothing.” — Kenneth

Every situation is going to be different. What you tell a child will vary based on the age of the child, their level of interest, and their race and/or yours may be a factor. One thing that is essential is that they are told the truth. Unfortunately, there are many different stories being told about the same events which mean parents may have to step up their game regarding the facts of slavery. If you’re going to say a schoolbook is wrong, you better be able to back it up.

In 1977, the mini-series Roots captivated the nation and started a conversation about slavery that may never be duplicated. There were only three basic television networks at the time, the show’s 130–140 million viewers equaled more than half of the US population at the time of 221 million. Each of the eight episodes still ranks among the top 100 most-watched episodes of all time. If someone managed to avoid watching Roots, it was almost impossible to avoid discussions of the show. People in America were talking about slavery.

I had a chance to re-watch Roots recently which is available on-demand on my cable subscriber. Knowing what I now know about slavery, it’s amazing how much information was slipped into the show, including the ever-changing laws that targeted slaves, even after they were freed. It also captured the real fear of white people during and after the Nat Turner rebellion.

Before I take this conversation in a whole different direction, many of the commenters mentioned watching documentaries or movies as a family and discussing them afterward. In addition to Roots, one might consider the PBS Series: Slavery and the Making of America, 500 Years Later, Roots of Resistance: The Story of the Underground Railroad, or Over the River… Life of Lydia Marie Child, Abolitionist for Freedom. There are also several children’s books about slavery including If You Lived When There Was Slavery in America, Henry’s Freedom Box, and All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom. Many of the children’s books have YouTube videos with the author reading the book aloud. Questions from the children should be expected, your ability to answer them may vary. If you don’t know the answer, don’t be afraid to say that, but commit to trying to find the answer and discuss your plan to do so.

There were responders who indicated they would say nothing at all to their children. I respectfully submit that children will learn something from somewhere about slavery and those parents might wish they had more involvement. There is a lot of rewriting of history even today. Many purported historians make excuses for slavery and praise the Founders for their foresight which led to the end of slavery in America. There is a part of the Constitution; Article 1, Section 9: Clause 1, which establishes that the US could not eliminate the International Slave Trade for at least twenty years.

They say it was a plan to eventually phase out slavery. I interpret it as something far more diabolical which combines protectionism with the forced breeding of domestic slaves in order to generate higher profits on their sale. If you’re going to talk to children about slavery be sure to get it right. If you choose never to speak to your children about slavery, you risk allowing them to be misinformed and led astray.

“Those Who Do Not Learn History Are Doomed To Repeat It.”

There was a response from a white woman with two black grandchildren ages 13, and 11. She said, “They are getting to the age where they need to know these things, but I’m lost.” In her case, I think I’d ask the children’s parent(s) if available what their plans were to discuss slavery and try to reach some consensus. Going alone without their involvement could create a bad situation which ultimately affects everyone’s relationship. Assuming you go forward; I’d begin with a discussion about what they have experienced at their ages specific to being black. You, as well as black parents and grandparents, will likely have to cover many topics including the civil rights movement, African civilizations, and black hair. Don’t be overwhelmed by what you don’t know, a trip to the library or a targeted Internet search may prove extremely helpful. I would suggest going at their pace, not force-feeding them if they’re not ready. and preparing for the possibility that the discussion never really ends. I’m still learning as will you and them.

There’s another category for which I got no responses, though I have hundreds of white Facebook friends. What do white people tell their white children about slavery? They shouldn’t assume they’ll be taught everything they need to know in school. They should take an interest in the curriculum and find out what is being taught, discuss with their children what they’re learning. Look for opportunities to supplement their learning, providing them the same books, videos, and documentaries I’ve suggested to black parents. Pay attention to their discussion about children and teachers of other races. Look for teachable moments about equality, study the histories of various cultures beyond your own.

Slavery was horrific, but it’s part of America’s past and shouldn’t be forgotten or dismissed. In an unrelated discussion about events during slave times, I was told (via the Internet), “that was 200 years ago, who cares?” In another discussion with a white co-worker about a race massacre that had occurred not 10 miles from where we were standing, he said, “Why would you want to bring any of that up? It will just create problems.” There are many who would like slavery to be a forgotten part of America’s history. This country was literally built by slaves and that contribution has never formally been acknowledged or compensated. Even today, the equivalent of slave labor is utilized in several nations, some of which benefits Americans who look the other way. The more we educate our own population, the better we can make the world. It all begins with teaching the children.

This post was previously published on Black History Month 365.


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The post How Do Parents Explain Enslavement to Their Children? appeared first on The Good Men Project.

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